Nicole Stellon O'Donnell. Steam Laundry. Boreal Books,2012.
At the center of Nicole Stellon O’Donnell’s Steam Laundry resides a wistful faith in the unlikely beauty accompanying poverty and manual labor. A thick collection of persona poems that traces a pioneer woman and her family during turn-of-the-century gold rush years in Alaska, this debut juxtaposes delicate lyricism with descriptions of repetitive work and little gain. The poems ask readers to notice “a thimble lost to the foxtail in front of the cabin” even in a place where “everyone struggles” and “life is the shovel.” Sarah Ellen Gibson, the laundress whose life the collection imagines, speaks movingly of “the smell of steam / sweetened with honey” rising from a teacup—and also of her desire “to wring // some meaning out of this life,” a life dubiously lit by “the gray / light of hope.”
Much of the bleak gray light informing these poems builds from O’Donnell’s research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Archives. Images of ephemera related to Gibson’s life (photographs, receipts) appear throughout the volume, and many of the poems employ found material taken from correspondence between Gibson and her husband and sons. In some places, these found phrases do not arrest. One speaker flatly reports:
Then I read about the Portland’s landing in Seattle.
A Ton of Gold the newspaper said.
While such lines contextualize Gibson’s journey, they do not offer the music and imagery that O’Donnell adeptly creates elsewhere.
It takes a patient, inventive hand to craft verse from the materials O’Donnell chooses, and probably requires genius to render such verses engaging throughout a collection. Indeed, the kind of historical documentation that O’Donnell undertakes presents a difficult task for poetry to perform. Image and sound drive poetry. Thus, Steam Laundry takes a risk in shouldering the weight of a multi-perspective story that, in prose, would often rely on subject and narrative. “While all the characters are real people and the events depicted are true,” O’Donnell writes in an author’s note, “I’ve taken liberties to fill in the narrative and emotional gaps.” Based on the beauty of the collection’s lyric moments, readers may wish the poet had taken more liberties.
However, O’Donnell’s project earns this reader’s respect, and in many instances the integration of found materials testifies to her skill. Take, for example, these stanzas from “Letter From Home,” in which Gibson’s sister speaks of their mother:
She sets a place
at the table for Worry,
who sweeps her black skirt aside
while she smoothes the napkin
on her lap. I hear
Mother whispering to her
evenings in front of the fire.
Tell the boys to dig hard
and get rich and come away
from that awful country.
The second stanza’s language, which borrows from or emulates archival materials, moves sharply away from the preceding figurative imagery. In that shift, readers notice the project’s seams, and experience tensions inherent in work that takes up the tricky task of speaking through others. Where found phrases coexist with O’Donnell’s subtle lyricism, this collection does justice to both the poet and her subjects.